Athletes Chess

Paul Morphy

Paul Charles Morphy was an American chess player. He is considered to have been the greatest chess master of his era and an unofficial World Chess Champion.

A chess prodigy, he was called “The Pride and Sorrow of Chess” because he had a brilliant chess career but retired from the game while still young.

Bobby Fischer ranked him among the ten greatest players of all time, and described him as “perhaps the most accurate player who ever lived”.

Morphy was born in New Orleans to a wealthy and distinguished family. He learned to play chess by simply watching games between his father and uncle.

His family soon recognized the boy’s talent and encouraged him to play at family gatherings, and by the age of nine he was considered to be one of the best players in the city.

At just twelve years of age, Morphy defeated visiting Hungarian master Johann Löwenthal in a match of three games.

After receiving his degree in 1857, Morphy was not yet of legal age to practice law and found himself with free time.

At his uncle’s urging, he accepted an invitation to play at the First American Chess Congress in New York City.

After winning the tournament, which included strong players such as Alexander Meek and Louis Paulsen, Morphy was hailed as the chess champion of the United States and stayed in New York playing chess through 1857, winning the vast majority of his games.

In 1858, Morphy traveled to Europe to play European Champion Howard Staunton. Morphy played almost every strong player in Europe, usually winning easily.

The match with Staunton never materialized, but Morphy was acclaimed by most in Europe as the world’s best player.

Returning to the United States in triumph, Morphy toured the major cities playing chess on his way back to New Orleans.

By 1859, on returning to New Orleans, Morphy declared he was retiring from chess to begin his law career.

However, Morphy was never able to establish a successful law practice and ultimately lived a life of idleness, living off his family’s fortune.

Despite appeals from his chess admirers, Morphy never returned to the game, and died in 1884 from a stroke at the age of 47.

  • Full name: Paul Charles Morphy
  • Profession: American chess player
  • Born: 22 June 1837, New Orleans, Louisiana, United States
  • Died: 10 July 1884, New Orleans, Louisiana, United States
  • World Champion: 1858–1862 (unofficial)
  • Education: Tulane University, Spring Hill College
  • Parents: Alonzo Morphy, Louise Le Carpentier

About Paul Morphy

Morphy was born 22 June 1837, New Orleans, Louisiana, United States. To a wealthy and distinguished family.

His father, Alonzo Michael Morphy, a lawyer, served as a Louisiana state legislator, attorney general, and a Louisiana State Supreme Court Justice.

Alonzo, who held Spanish nationality, was of Spanish, Portuguese, and Irish ancestry. Morphy’s mother, Louise Thérèse Félicité Thelcide Le Carpentier, was the musically talented daughter of a prominent French Creole family.

Morphy grew up in an atmosphere of genteel civility and culture where chess and music were the typical highlights of a Sunday home gathering.

According to his uncle, Ernest Morphy, no one formally taught Morphy how to play chess; rather, Morphy learned on his own as a young child simply from watching others play.

After silently watching a lengthy game between Ernest and Alonzo, which they abandoned as drawn, young Paul surprised them by stating that Ernest should have won.

His father and uncle had not realized that Paul knew the moves, let alone any chess strategy. They were even more surprised when Paul proved his claim by resetting the pieces and demonstrating the win his uncle had missed.


After that incident Morphy’s family recognized him as a precocious talent and encouraged him to play at family gatherings and local chess milieus.

By the age of nine, he was considered one of the best players in New Orleans. In 1846, General Winfield Scott visited the city, and let his hosts know that he desired an evening of chess with a strong local player.

Chess was an infrequent pastime of Scott’s, but he enjoyed the game and considered himself a formidable player.

After dinner, the chess pieces were set up and Scott’s opponent was brought in: diminutive, nine-year-old Morphy.

Scott was at first offended, thinking he was being made fun of, but he consented to play after being assured that his wishes had been scrupulously obeyed and that the boy was a “chess prodigy” who would tax his skill.

Morphy beat him easily not once, but twice, the second time announcing a forced checkmate after only six moves.

In 1850, when Morphy was twelve, the strong professional Hungarian chess master Johann Löwenthal visited New Orleans.

Löwenthal, who had often played and defeated talented youngsters, considered the informal match a waste of time but accepted the offer as a courtesy to the well-to-do judge.

By about the twelfth move in the first game, Löwenthal realized he was up against someone formidable.

Each time Morphy made a good move, Löwenthal’s eyebrows shot up in a manner described by Ernest Morphy as “comique”.

Löwenthal played three games with Paul Morphy during his New Orleans stay, scoring two losses and one draw (or, according to another source, losing all three).